The scalpel of God

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“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)

This is the message from last Sunday, September 23, 2018, on which the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. The sermon is related to that anniversary, but rooted in the assigned readings: Mark 9:30-37, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, and James 3:13-4:8a,

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You see, O God,
the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

It’s hard to believe I have been doing this for 40 years. It’s stunning to wake up one morning and realize how long it’s been. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think back to all the people and places I’ve known. I have lots of memories – though not as many as I wish. I regret not having kept a journal of my experiences through the years.

A friend wrote me last week about a dramatic graveside service in the rain. It was Wisconsin, so I’m assuming there had been a thunderstorm. I wrote back about a graveside service on a cold November day in Toledo, grey skies, the trees stripped of their leaves, in a little old country cemetery now surrounded on three sides by an oil refinery. I stood at the head of a casket before a small huddle of people, amid the pungent aromas of the refinery and the sounds of its clangs and whistles and whooshes, reading the ancient texts and speaking the promise of a new creation. I wish I knew who that was.

I wish I remembered the name of the person whose funeral I conducted one Good Friday. I had buried his wife four days earlier. He went home after the service, climbed up in his closet and got down an old pistol. Now their adult children were before me once again.

In those days when the heavens seem silent, it falls to the preacher to speak, to break that wall of silence, to let the voice of God be heard in its fearful sweetness.

I never understood the wife of a colleague of mine who was a minister in the United Church of Christ. For her, the sermon was only one member of the community sharing their thoughts for the rest of the community – thoughts the community could take or leave as they saw fit. I don’t know if that’s true of her whole church body; I just know she didn’t share this deep conviction that somewhere in the weeds of the preacher’s words would be hiding the voice of the eternal with all its power to wound and heal.

When I was interviewed here, downstairs in the Fireside Room, I was asked to lead a devotion at the beginning of the meeting. I don’t remember if the call committee had forgotten to tell me they wanted me to do this, or if it was part of the test to see what I might do at the last moment. I turned to the passage in Hebrews (4:12) about the Word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword and talked about the fact that the word ‘sword’ there was the word for the small dagger possessed by a soldier, not the big sword. That dagger was used for fine cutting. It’s more of a knife than a sword, and I suggested we should understand the Word of God as a scalpel with which God does surgery on our hearts.

We are in need of surgery. The Bible is not a book of doctrines and policies; it gives very few absolute answers beyond loving God and neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. But what the Bible does do is convey to us these stories, events, poems and preaching that have the power, like a scalpel, to set us free from the fears and sins that bind us and shape us into the creatures we were meant to be.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kavanaugh did this thing of which he is accused. And let’s clear away for a moment all the partisan politics and ideologies that are clamoring for power. Let us just imagine that a person is suddenly confronted with a fact from the past saying, “You did this to me, and this is what it cost me.”

It is a fearful thought. Maybe it was forgotten in a haze of alcohol, maybe it was a memory suppressed, maybe it was one of those things you never thought anything about because it was ordinary in the world in which you lived, I don’t know. But suddenly here is this word with its long bony finger pointed at you. This is the story of David and the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:1-12:23). David is swept away by the beauty of Uriah’s wife bathing in the moonlight. He sends for her. She gets pregnant. He brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime. Uriah is too honorable to enjoy the comforts of his home and bed while his men are in the field. David gives secret orders to put Uriah in the front lines and pull away. He is killed. The King’s crime is covered and forgotten. But then comes Nathan with a story of a poor man and his single beloved lamb. The lamb lies in the poor man’s lap like one of our comfort animals. The rich man with many flocks has a visitor arrive and takes the poor man’s lamb to serve his guest for dinner. David is incensed. “The man deserves to die,” he shouts. And then Nathan points his long bony finger and says: “You are the man.”

The word of God is a scalpel. But it points at David not to condemn and destroy, but to free and heal him.

So here we are with this story about Kavanaugh. The response we see around us is to destroy him or to destroy her, and in that instinctive reaction it is not Kavanaugh’s sins that are on display nor his accusers; it is our sins. We are not looking for healing; we are looking for triumph. One way or the other, one side or the other, we want to win. We want to crush our enemies. And we are willing to order Kavanaugh or Ford to the front lines and pull back.

So there is a story about the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). The king of Aram (what is now Syria) is at war with Israel. But God keeps telling the prophet what the king of Aram is doing, where he is moving his troops, where he is planning to attack, and the King of Israel keeps escaping his grasp. The King of Aram is enraged, convinced that one of his generals is betraying him by leaking his plans to the enemy. They all plead innocence. None of them is the betrayer; it is the prophet who whispers to the King of Israel the King of Aram’s private thoughts. So the King of Aram sends his army to seize the prophet. They come at night and surround the city.

In the morning, the prophet’s servant looks out and sees the town surrounded by an army of horses and chariots and cries out in fear. His story is about to end at the point of a spear. But the prophet prays for God to open his servant’s eyes, and he looks up to see the angelic armies of God encircling the city. “Those who are with us,” says the prophet, “are more than those who are with them.”

God strikes the enemy troops with a blindness, a confusion, a fog. As they come into town, the prophet says “Oh you have the wrong town. I’ll show you the way.” And he leads them to the King of Israel. The prophet prays for God to open their eyes and they find themselves surrounded in the capital city. And here is the punch line: The king asks the prophet what he’s supposed to do with the enemy now in his hand. “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” All his enemy’s soldiers are in his power. He has the chance to destroy them completely. But the prophet says instead that he should feed them. The king sets before them a banquet. They sit down to a table of peace. They are reconciled.

We want to win. We want to crush our enemies. “Shall I kill them, my father?” But the scalpel of God tells a story about reconciliation, repentance, transformation, love of God and neighbor.

I have a deep sympathy for Ford; I know something about sexual assault. I also have a deep sympathy for Kavanaugh; I know something about having your life turned upside down in a moment – and I know something about the sins of our youth. Perhaps mostly, I have a deep sorrow for the nation, because we are so far from the kingdom and rushing in the wrong direction. We are a people who do not know how to repent, and the sins of our past – from greed and slavery and genocide to our everlasting faith in winning at all costs – keep haunting us. Our good deeds can’t make the old deeds go away. David was faithful in almost everything. Yet this murder of Uriah needed to be confessed or it would all go wrong.

So there’s another story (1 Kings 21). King Ahab married the daughter of the Sidonian king (1 Kings 16:31). Her name was Jezebel. We don’t name our kids Jezebel anymore.

Ahab grows up in a world where God is God. God has given the land to the people, divided it among every tribe and family. The land is not my possession; it is a gift of God to my family. It is my responsibility to care for it; it is not my privilege to dispose of it. The law says I can’t sell it. If I have to, I can sell the right to use the land until the next sabbatical year. I can sell the next so many harvests, but I can’t sell it permanently.

Ahab is king. He has a palace. He wants the vineyard that belongs to Naboth in order to grow vegetables. Naboth is scandalized by the idea that he should sell his patrimony. He says no. Ahab is depressed and goes to bed. Jezebel is disgusted. She will teach him how a king uses power. She gives a banquet. She invites Naboth to sit at the high table. She hires two scoundrels to sit next to him. In the middle of the dinner they stand up and accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King. They take him out and stone him to death. Jezebel goes to Ahab and says, “Go get your garden.”

Except God has a prophet. God has a servant with God’s heavenly scalpel. And the prophet is standing there in the garden when Ahab shows up to claim it. This is not the kingship God wants, says the prophet, Ahab’s kingdom will fall by the same violence Ahab used.

And so the scalpel of God comes to us. Will we choose violence or faithfulness? Will we choose victory or redemption? Will we choose wealth, power and conquest or justice, mercy and reconciliation?

Story after story, preached word after preached word, songs and poems and history and even erotic poetry – it’s all here in this book – and lurking in it all is this God with a scalpel who would heal our hearts.

So, in the texts we heard today: Jeremiah is a prophet. He holds the scalpel of God. And the word of judgment he speaks against a corrupt regime creates enemies. The king doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say. Jeremiah will send the king a copy of everything God had said, and the king will burn it all, page by page, in the brazier standing next to him to keep him warm. (Jeremiah 36)

Jeremiah is a priest. His hometown is a village of priests. They all have a stake in the temple and the monarchy. They have a good life. They don’t want Jeremiah mucking it up for them. They see treason in him, not the divine scalpel. They plot to kill him. And so we hear Jeremiah crying out to God in the words we read this morning: “I was like a lamb led to the slaughter.” And we know there is in us a piece of this village of Anathoth that wants to hold on to what we have even if it means silencing the prophet. Even as Jerusalem rose up against Jesus.

The book of James wields the divine scalpel against the passions that drive our hearts and lead us to betray the divine will. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are thinking: “Our time is coming! We are going to win. We are going to rule.” And they argue over which of them is the top dog.

“What were you talking about?” asks Jesus. He knows full well what they were talking about. Arguments in the Middle East are never quiet.

“What were you talking about?” And suddenly they are silent. Jesus is holding the divine scalpel in his hand. It’s not a sword, though; it’s just a scalpel. It is always just a scalpel, meant to heal and not to harm. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And Jesus puts a child in their midst.

Now we have to get this right. In our society, if you don’t have enough food, you feed the children first. In the time of Jesus, you feed the adults first. Children are loved, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. They are valued. They are blessings from God. Hopefully they will become adults and take care of their aging parents. But the odds are they won’t make it to adulthood. The death toll is too high. The calories have to go to those who can work the fields.

If we really want to understand what Jesus is saying to his followers, we need to imagine Jesus taking a refugee, or a homeless person, or an addict, whomever we think matters least, and setting him or her in the midst of us, putting his arms around him or her and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184618433).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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A new beginning of the world

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A reflection on Mark 1:1-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord.

King David is, for Israel, like George Washington is for us. He is the noble leader that represents the best of his country. We don’t really want any dirty laundry about George Washington. We like the story about the boy who could not tell a lie and the young man strong enough to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. We don’t really want to know that they didn’t have silver dollars in his day and that, even if they did, a dollar was worth a lot in those days and George wouldn’t have thrown that kind of money away – nor do we want to know that the original story is about chucking rocks across the Rappahannock.

We like the myth rather than the reality, because the myth has an important function. The word ‘myth’, in its best sense, doesn’t mean a false or made up story; it means a story that embodies and communicates some important truth. Our first president was indeed strong and honest, concerned about what was good for the republic rather that what might profit himself. And the ‘myth’ of the cherry tree lifts up these important qualities that embody core values of our national identity. The stories are meant to inspire us to our best selves.

The myth is important, but we do not deny reality. We know, for example, that Washington owned slaves. Though technically they belonged to his wife, he would have had the authority to free them had he chosen to do so. So we value the ‘myth’ for what it says to us, but we also acknowledge the truth.

David is the hero of Israel. And the story about Goliath sounds remarkably like one of those cherry tree stories. We respect the story about David’s courage and his trust in and fidelity to God. But the scripture is also willing to tell us that David conspired to order the death of his noble warrior, Uriah, in order to hide David’s crime of taking Uriah’s wife that would have been exposed when Bathsheba she got pregnant.

What makes David a hero, by the way, is that, when confronted with his crime, he confesses and repents. He doesn’t deny and obfuscate and lie and blame. He turns back to God.

But there were consequences to David’s crime. He had allowed power to corrupt him and lead him to betray God and the people by taking what belonged to another – and then to a cover-up that ended in violence. The result would be that his family would be troubled by corruption and violence.

So the scripture tells us that David’s eldest son, Amnon, lusted after his half-sister, Tamar, and after manipulating her into his bedchamber by pretending to be sick, he took her – by force – and then discarded her.

Tamar’s brother, Absalom, quietly plotted against his half-brother and two years later took his vengeance and murdered him. Absalom fled Jerusalem, but David refused to hold him accountable and eventually allowed him to return, though he would not allow Absalom to come to court.

Absalom got tired of that and sent for Joab who was the head of the army and one of David’s closest advisors. Joab, however, wouldn’t come so Absalom set Joab’s fields on fire to force him to come. Absalom then pressured Joab into making a way for him to return to the king’s presence. At which time, Absalom began to plot to seize the throne. He told the people that they wouldn’t get justice from David but that they could get justice from himself if he were king.

Eventually, Absalom arranged a coup and David and his advisors were forced to flee Jerusalem. (Absalom set up a tent on the roof of the palace for all to see and went in to sleep with his father’s concubines. What David had done in secret to Uriah, Absalom did to him in public.)

War ensued – and now I am getting close to my point. David gave instructions to his commanders that they were not to hurt his son, Absalom. But Joab, his leading commander, knowing the kind of threat Absalom posed, disobeyed the order and killed him. When the battle was over, a young man named Ahimaaz wanted to run back to the king to deliver the good news that his forces had been victorious. Joab tried to discourage him and sent someone else, knowing that the king would be dismayed by the news and would not reward the runner.

The Greek translation of the original Hebrew uses the word ‘euanggelion’ for the “good news” of victory. ‘Euanggelion’ is the word that comes into English as ‘gospel’. That Greek root gives us the family of words like ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’. And it is the Greek word in our Gospel reading today that is translated as ‘good news’.

This is a very long introduction to the fact that the Greek word we translate as ‘gospel’ is a very ordinary word. It is not a religious word. And it has two basic semantic fields. The one is the story I have just told: the news of victory from the battlefield. The other idea at work in this word is that of a royal proclamation. When a new king arises, he issues a proclamation to the citizens of his new lands declaring amnesty and announcing his benefactions to the people.

So this document that is before us from an unknown author who, by tradition, we call Mark – this document presents itself as a royal proclamation and news of victory from the battlefield.

The translation “good news” doesn’t seem like it has enough gravitas to be an effective translation of this word. But we don’t have a word in English that will accomplish all that this Greek word conveys. So we have to remember that the Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the announcement of peace at the end of World War II that has people cheering in the streets and a sailor sweeping a nurse off her feet with a kiss.

The Gospel that is proclaimed to us is like the emancipation proclamation of Abraham Lincoln to the three million enslaved people in the South. It is royal amnesty, a word that we are released from every debt.

This story of Jesus is ‘gospel’. It is ‘euanggelion’. It is incredible news. It is the end of war and emancipation. God has come to reclaim his world. God has come to drench us in the Spirit. God has come to wipe away the whole history of human sin that began with Adam and Eve. God has come to shatter the gates of hell and set all its prisoners free. God has come to break the grip of fear and guilt and sorrow and death.

This is the ‘gospel’. And when we call ourselves an Evangelical Lutheran Church we mean we are bearers of this proclamation.

Now if someone were hearing this ‘gospel’ for the first time, they would naturally ask, “Who is this Jesus that he should be making a royal proclamation?”

Mark tells us that this Jesus is “Son of God”, which means that he is the person God has authorized to act on God’s behalf. He is the one appointed to reign. This is a culture in which to speak to the son is to speak to the father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. This is a society in which the kings of Israel were referred to as “son of God”. They weren’t gods, but they reigned on God’s behalf.

This Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God.

This Jesus is the one to whom the prophets bear witness.

This Jesus is the one upon whom the Spirit of God has descended. The heavens have been torn open. A breach has been made in the vault of heaven and the mighty wind and holy breath of God has invaded the world and courses through this Jesus.

Through this Jesus the whole world will be flooded with this Spirit of God.

This Spirit that is upon Jesus is upon us.

And God is delighted. “With you,” says the voice from heaven, “I am well pleased.” This is such a pale translation of powerful words. This is good in God’s eyes. It echoes the creation story when God looks upon what God has created and declares it good.

This is a new beginning of the world.

It doesn’t matter to Mark that armies are marching and it seems like the world is coming apart. It doesn’t matter to Mark that he has seen Rome’s brutal power impale this Jesus to a cross. He has seen the empty tomb. He has seen the sick healed and the lame walk and the blind see. He has seen sinners forgiven and outcasts restored and withered hands made whole. He has seen the unclean made clean and heard demons cry out and flee. This is a new beginning of the world.

This is a new beginning of the world.

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AF_Mochi_Bautismo_de_Cristo_1634_P_Braschi.jpg Francesco Mochi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

God is still God

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Nathan confronts King David / David in prayer and fasting with worried servants watching

Wednesday

2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-20

15 The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. 16 David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground.

The prayer of a parent for a child is desperate. Even when death is certain, the cry rises. Seven days the king lies on that floor. Seven days without food. Seven days in urgent petition. Hoping against hope. Pleading with God.

We all know of David’s sin with Bathsheba – he abuses his royal power to take another man’s wife and then arrange the husband’s death to hide the crime. But the crime is not hidden. God sees. And God sends Nathan to confront David.

The consequences of David’s sin are brutal: A lasting legacy of violence will plague David’s house. A son will take all David’s concubines in full view of all. And this child will die.

The death of children is common in David’s time – but the prophet makes sure that David knows that the death of this child rests solely on himself. If there were no sin, there would be no child to perish.

Other kings have slain prophets for such a message, but David acknowledges his sin.   And David prays. Seven days. Hoping against hope. Desperate prayer. Tears. Against the greatest fear of every parent. Maybe God will work a miracle? But no miracle comes.

David knows God is a God not only of judgment but of mercy, so David begs for mercy. For the child. For the mother. For God to erase the consequences of his deed. But sometimes there is no recovery from the consequences of our deeds.

And then our text says:

19 But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” 20 Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped.

David worships. He comes before the altar. He offers his sacrifice. He hears the prayers and the song. He remembers this God of the Exodus. He acknowledges this God of Sinai. He communes, partakes of the holy meal. He goes forward. Life will not be easy, but God is still God.  And there is yet mercy.

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For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 11, or Proper C 6

Image: Paris psalter gr139 fol136v  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_psaulter_gr139_fol136v.jpg  public domain

Forgiven

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Watching for the Morning of June 12, 2016

Year C

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 6 / Lectionary 11

This Sunday forgiveness takes center stage. We hear the prophet Nathan confront King David about his murder of Uriah to cover David’s crime with Bathsheba. It is a brilliant effort, using a story of a poor man’s treasured sheep, seized and killed by his wealthy neighbor, to get David to condemn himself.

It is not clear whether Jesus has as much success with Simon the Pharisee, who invites Jesus to a banquet but shows him none of the honor due a guest. In scandal after scandal, a woman bursts in on the scene, washes Jesus feet with her tears and dries them by unbinding her hair. Simon concludes that Jesus is no prophet; a prophet would know this woman is a “sinner”. But Jesus knows both her and Simon, and with a story of two debtors gets Simon to acknowledge that the forgiveness of a great debt creates great love. Then, like Nathan saying to David, “You are the man!”, comes the piercing revelation of Simon’s lack of hospitality and hardness of heart.

We will hear of David’s repentance, but not of Simon’s, and the psalm will talk about these two responses: describing how the heart shrivels when sin is not acknowledged, and how life is restored when it is confessed and forgiven.

Sunday, our second reading continues in Galatians, where we hear Paul speaking to the congregation in Galatia asserting again that it is not the observance of Judean custom and ritual that makes us acceptable to God, but our trust in and allegiance to the God who raised Jesus from the dead. It is a message that leads him to joyfully proclaim:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

The Prayer for June 12, 2016

Gracious God,
whose infinite mercy should prompt in us an infinite love,
help us to taste and see your goodness
and to share that banquet with all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 12, 2016

First Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-20 (appointed 2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:10, 13-15)
“Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’” –
The prophet Nathan confronts David on his murder of Uriah to hide his crime with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah – and David repents.

Psalmody: Psalm 32
“Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”
– The psalmist tells of the corrosive power of unconfessed sin, and the liberating mercy of God when he acknowledges his fault.

Second Reading: Galatians 2:15-21
“We have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”
– Having shown that his Gospel was not delivered on behalf of any human authority but through his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul reasserts his teaching that we are not made acceptable to God by the observance of Judean ritual and customs, but by trust and loyalty to the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

Gospel: Luke 7:36-8:3
“‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’” –
Jesus is invited to feast at the home of Simon, a Pharisee, but is shown none of the proper hospitalities. A woman breaks into the dinner and washes Jesus feet with her tears and anoints them with a perfumed oil. Jesus’ acceptance of her confirms Simon’s presumption that Jesus is not a prophet – but Jesus shows prophetic insight and speaks to Simon with a parable about two debtors and what is shown by great love.

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AForgiveness_0001.jpg By scem.info [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Why does the innocent die?

Wednesday

2 Samuel 12

Français : Chapiteau du narthex (1140-1150), 2...

Français : Chapiteau du narthex (1140-1150), 2ème pile Nord; reproches de Nathan à David ( le prophète Nathan reproche au roi David son adultère avec Bethsabée, la femme d’un de ses généraux). Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

13David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord. “Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”

We might as well start here because it is the thing in the text we all find most disturbing.  Why should the child perish because of the sin of its parents?  I wish the answer were simple, but it isn’t.

Not that there aren’t simple answers, they just aren’t good ones.  Job’s friends had a simple answer for his suffering – he must have sinned – but it wasn’t true.  A sin may result in suffering, but suffering doesn’t mean there was a sin.

Another simple answer is that God has a hidden purpose in it – and while it is true that God works God’s purposes in the midst of suffering and that God can bring good out of the worst evil, the idea that God should slay a child to teach its parents a lesson is deeply disturbing.  The truth of human experience is the opposite: it is we who sacrifice our children at the altar of ambition and desire.

It’s not just that we trash families pursuing our desires or neglect children for our various addictions. We bury children sent off to fight our wars.  We drive them to self-destruction in the quest to be perfect in body or sport or academics.  We let them perish on our highways rather than restrict our right to drink and drive.  It is always the innocent who suffer.  And so it is here 3,000 years ago, the innocent child suffers the consequences of the parental pride, lust and ambition.

In the world of David and Bathsheba the death of children was painfully common.  The King’s household – with better food and shelter than most – may have had fewer such tragedies, but it was the way of life for all humanity before modern medical care.  Children died.  The prophet’s word in this case is that this death is not just one of those ordinary deaths – it is rooted in David’s sin.  There is no child without his sin; there is no death without his sin – neither of Uriah or the child.

Whatever hopes David and Bathsheba had for their illicit union – and Bathsheba will succeed in setting a son of her womb on the throne, though Solomon is not the eldest son and heir – God has interposed a resounding “No!”  The powerful imagine they can act with impunity; God holds them to account.  For David this is a personal message:  “You think you can have it all.  You can’t.”

The death of this child is not a general principle or an abstract theological problem; it is a specific prophetic word to a specific person in a specific time and place.  The role of a prophet is to reveal the meaning in the events of the time.  The meaning of David’s sin is that it brings death – death starting with this very own child.  David’s life will never be free of the sword.  His attempt to stand above the law will echo through his lifetime with violence in his own household.  One son will rape his step-sister and her brother will strike him down.  The eldest will lead a revolt and take all his father’s concubines in full sight of the whole city.  David will see the consequences of his surrender to the corrupting power of privilege.

None of this is surprising in a prophetic word.  What is surprising is that David repents.  The King does not destroy the prophet for his message; he submits.  He does not ignore the divine word; he turns back to God.  And God forgives.

It is this that makes David great.